I spend a lot of time thinking about chocolate brownies, and have come to the conclusion that no one recipe can be all things to everyone—myself included.
Some days I've got the time to brown butter with a vanilla bean and foam eggs with brown sugar for what I consider to be the ultimate fudge brownie, but other times my need is dire—an insatiable craving, last-minute house guests, an impromptu party, a sudden, soul-crushing plot point on some binge-worthy show.
Times like that, I can see the allure of a boxed mix that comes together faster than you can say "preheat to 350," though it's not an option I particularly enjoy. Not that I have a gripe with commercial mixes! To the contrary, they're central to the fondest memories of my childhood and my identity as a chef and cookbook author. Rather, it's that I enjoy the act of making things from scratch, from picking out just the right dark chocolate for the job to bringing it all together with my own two hands, even if it's a little more time consuming.
These conflicting desires led me to develop a recipe that could deliver both instant gratification and a fully homemade dessert: DIY brownie mix.
I already had something of a template in the muffin mix recipe from my cookbook, which relies on the reverse creaming method (combining dry ingredients and fat before adding liquid) and the unique properties of refined coconut oil* to create a dry, shelf-stable mix. The question was, could I do the same thing for brownies?
*Refined coconut oil is odorless, flavorless, solid at temperature below 75°F, and so resistant to spoilage the "best by" date on the package is often more than year beyond the date of purchase.
The answer is yes, albeit with some major tweaks. Butter, whether browned on the stovetop or in the oven as the brownies bake, provides great depth of flavor with those nutty, toasted notes. Without it, brownies can taste a little one dimensional, but with the umami bomb of dessert (malted milk powder) I can fortify my brownie mix with both malt and lactose, creating plenty of savory, toasty, nutty flavor. This is the same stuff you'll find in canisters next to hot cocoa mix at the supermarket, usually from brands like Carnation and Ovaltine (Horlicks, for those outside the US), but it's also easy to purchase from brands like Hoosier Hill Farms online.
As with my "regular" brownies, the backbone of this brownie mix comes from a combination of both high-fat Dutch cocoa (I use Cacao Barry Extra Brute) and dark chocolate (check out my favorite supermarket brands). This isn't a recipe where natural cocoa will do, as its lighter, fruitier profile doesn't deliver the kind of earthy darkness these brownies need.
While that mix of neutral coconut oil, malted milk powder, dark chocolate, and Dutch cocoa gave my early test batches all the same deep and satisfying flavors I crave in a brownie, they were missing one thing: a glossy crust. From troubleshooting with readers, I knew that a dull, matte crust was typically the result of two things: low-fat/high-starch cocoa powder and/or under-whipped eggs that left a good deal of the recipe's sugar content undissolved. Since I knew my brownie mix had plenty of fat from both refined coconut oil and cocoa butter, that left sugar to blame.
Something similar happened during the testing phase of my buttermilk waffle recipe, where I learned that powdered sugar dissolved more effectively in the batter, producing a more golden crust. So I switched to powdered sugar and voilà, the next batch baked up with a top crust as crinkled and glossy as they come.
Conventional and organic powdered sugar work equally well, but organic brands contain a portion of the cane sugar's natural molasses content, creating more depth of flavor compared to the simple sweetness of a fully refined powdered sugar. Due to the intensity of Dutch cocoa and dark chocolate, the difference is fairly negligible in brownies, but organic tends to be what I have on hand (for more info, read up on the differences between conventional and organic powdered sugar).
Aside from the persnickety details related to the ingredients, the recipe itself is, by design, insanely easy—toss all the dry ingredients in a food processor and grind until the mixture is powdery and fine, with no visible lumps of chocolate. This can take up to two or three minutes depending on the size and power of a given food processor, as well as the sharpness of the blade. The idea of big chocolate chunks may seem alluring, but don't rush this step! The even distribution of finely ground chocolate and the way these tiny pieces will melt is essential to fudginess of the brownies, so be patient and process the mix until you can no longer hear bits of chocolate banging around the bowl.
Once the mixture is thoroughly pulverized, add the refined coconut oil, which should be in its solid state, and pulse only until well combined, about 30 seconds. Friction from excessive processing at this stage can liquify the oil, making the mix wet enough to stick to the bowl and blade. This won't affect the brownies in any way, but it's an annoying problem that's easy to avoid with a little attention to detail.
Should you decide that you don't want to give your future self the gift of brownie mix, you can go ahead and pour all the liquid ingredients through the chute to form a glossy batter, then skip to the baking stage.
But, of course, the real magic happens when you pause the process and stash the powdery dry brownie mix on the shelf, where, at cool room temperature, it will keep until the date stamped on the package of coconut oil (typically about a year from the date of purchase).
Do make sure not to stick it on the shelf above your stove. At temperatures above 75°F, the coconut oil will begin to melt, making the mix wet, lumpy, and difficult to use. Below 65°F, the coconut oil will harden enough to make hydrating the mix more difficult. Neither scenario will affect the mix's overall shelf life, but they will change its behavior in ways no recipe can comprehensively account for (this is true of any recipe based on solid fats like coconut oil and butter). So make an effort to store the mix somewhere around 70°F (21°C), give or take, or else be aware that you're venturing off the map.
Otherwise, when the next brownie craving strikes, all you need to do is preheat the oven to 350°F, shake the dry mix into a bowl, and scale out the water, eggs, and vanilla.
Water may sound like a janky addition to a homemade mix, but what the brownies need at this stage is hydration, not flavor. Thanks to the malted milk powder, the mix already has plenty of lactose, so a double dose will only mute its chocolaty-ness. Meanwhile, it has plenty of fat from a trifecta of coconut oil, cocoa butter, and chocolate, so the added richness of whole milk isn't needed; besides, too much fat will have a tenderizing effect, reducing the brownies' wonderful chewiness.
That said, skim milk can be a welcome addition to the recipe if malted milk powder isn't available. The brownies will still lack the complexity of malt, but it's a reasonable adjustment in a pinch (and yet another victory for the unsung utility of skim milk).
Assembly involves nothing more than adding the liquid ingredients and stirring with a flexible spatula to combine. At first, the mix may seem too dry, but keep stirring and it will come together all on its own. Next, scrape into an eight-inch square aluminum pan (I like the super sharp corners of the Parrish Magic pans, but if you prefer anodized aluminum so the pan can be used for savory applications, Fat Daddios makes an excellent version, as well as one with a removable bottom).
Compared to a batter done from start to finish in a food processor, hand mixing produces comparatively thicker and lumpier results. The visual difference comes from the cold milk and eggs seizing the coconut oil, which a food processor can overcome through sheer horsepower. Either way, the results will be glossy topped brownies that puff as they bake, then crinkle as they cool.
If you don't have an eight-inch square aluminum pan, these brownies can also be baked in a two-quart glass, ceramic, or stoneware casserole dish without any negative effects, unlike my brown butter brownies, which have a richer formula that does best in a reflective metal pan. These brownies have a lighter formula that's a little more forgiving, so use what you've got!
However you go about it, mixing the batter in the food processor or by hand, baking in metal or ceramic, the results will be the same: super chewy fudge brownies with glossy, crinkled tops.
The entire recipe can be also be doubled—just store the mix in a gallon-sized zip-top bag and bake it off in a nine- by thirteen-inch anodized aluminum baking pan (since urgent brownie needs usually center around my own impulsive desires, this isn't a size I trust myself to keep on hand).
Compared to my brown butter brownies, these easy chocolate brownies have a similar depth, but a texture that's considerably more chewy—identical to that of a typical boxed brownie. It's also quite a bit less rich, making it more suitable as an afternoon snack that won't derail dinner. That same lightness makes these relatively lean brownies the perfect counterpoint to richer toppings, whether a scoop of vanilla ice cream, bananas sautéed in butter, toasted nuts, a generous drizzle of homemade caramel sauce, or all of the above.